Nick Saban won't win it, but you could make a strong argument that he's the SEC Coach of the Year so far
Let’s just get it out of the way.
You saw that headline and thought “Nick Saban has more talent than anyone to work with.” Or maybe you went with the “stop crowning Alabama before they played anyone.”
If I just guessed your exact comment, I apologize. Here’s a couple more you could throw at me before I explain why Saban’s case for SEC Coach of the Year is better than ever.
“You could say that every year.” Or “then you could just say the coach of the No. 1 team is the automatic coach of the year.”
I hear all of those opinions. Real original, they are.
But unoriginal is handing any conference coach of the year award to the coach of the surprise team, assuming there is one. That’s what will likely happen this year. In fact, my prediction is that Ed Orgeron and Mark Stoops will share the annual honor at season’s end. Both of them will be plenty deserving of the award for the jobs they’ve done trouncing preseason narratives. You could throw Dan Mullen into that conversation, as well.
A lot can happen the rest of the way, but all signs point to Saban being the coach of the No. 1 team in the country at the end of the regular season and not having a conference coach of the year award to show for it.
I mean, Saban has 4 national titles since 2010 and he has 1 SEC Coach of the Year award during that stretch. Never mind the fact that he also produced the nation’s top recruiting class in every year during that time up until Kirby Smart ended that streak in 2018.
So why could you make a good case for Saban in 2018? Besides the obvious — his team might be his best yet — is well, you know what? Let’s stick with the obvious.
It’s the unofficial halfway point of the season and all but one against-the-grain Associated Press Top 25 voter believes that Alabama is still the No. 1 team in the country. Saban’s squad is 7-0 with an average margin of victory of 38 points (35 in SEC play). Alabama has the Heisman Trophy front-runner in Tua Tagovailoa, who has yet to throw a pass in the fourth quarter of a game.
You already know all of those things. If those things all hold true through the SEC Championship, we’ll be looking at the most dominant pre-bowl start in college football history.
I know what you’re thinking. Yeah … so what? Why does Saban suddenly deserve more praise than ever?
It’s simple, really.
This quarterback situation — the one that we spent all summer discussing — is working out better than Saban could have ever imagined. Not only did he pick the right guy in Tagovailoa, who has basically been perfect, but he got Jalen Hurts to buy into his backup role and not transfer or try to use the new redshirt rule. And with the help of the guy Saban hired as his third offensive coordinator in as many years, Mike Locksley, Hurts is actually developing as a passer and looking more like the 2016 version of himself that won SEC Offensive Player of the Year.
Don’t want to give defensive-minded Saban credit for the offense? That’s fine.
Let’s instead look at a defense that replaced 6 key players from its secondary and is still ranked No. 7 in scoring defense allowing 15.1 points per game. With the loss of Trevon Diggs, who is out for the season with a broken foot, you could actually argue that Alabama is without its top 7 defensive backs from a year ago. Still, the Tide just held first-round prospect Drew Lock to Mizzou’s lowest offensive output in over a year.
And yeah, this defense doesn’t look like Saban’s best. That much we know. But it still has first-year starters like Deionte Thompson and Quinnen Williams earning midseason All-America honors. Despite Saban’s frustration over things like the Arkansas game and the 4 yards per rush Alabama is surrendering, this is still a unit that allowed 1 of its first 7 opponents to hit the 24-point mark.
Spoiler alert: That’s more than enough for Tagovailoa and the nation’s top scoring offense.
As boring as Alabama’s dominance seems to some, I’d argue it’s that much more impressive that this group has still been this locked in compared to teams like Clemson and Ohio State, which have both been in down-to-the-wire games against lesser teams this year.
And while it’s certainly admirable the way Orgeron and Stoops have gotten their team to rise above preseason expectations, I’d argue getting a team motivated under those circumstances is — dare I say — easier than motivating a team with rat poison galore like Alabama.
For crying out loud, Saban has seniors with multiple national championship rings actually believing that they haven’t been given the respect they deserve.
— Paul Finebaum (@finebaum) October 15, 2018
Alabama’s offense is closer to Goliath than anyone’s little brother. That wasn’t necessarily a given, though. It can’t be overstated how well this quarterback situation has worked out.
Remember 2015 Ohio State? After taking down Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl and winning the national title, Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett led the greatest quarterback controversy ever and became the first consensus preseason No. 1 in the AP Top 25. Then that offense couldn’t live up to the hype and the Buckeyes missed the Playoff.
How about 2018 Clemson? That team had a great quarterback controversy of its own and Dabo Swinney watched 2017 starter Kelly Bryant do what many thought Hurts would do and use the new redshirt rule. As we saw against Syracuse, Clemson is a Trevor Lawrence injury from watching this season look vastly different.
Meanwhile, 2018 Alabama just watched Tagovailoa deal with his first injury scare of the season. All Saban did was calmly turn to a guy with a 26-2 record who looks like he’s playing better than he did when he got Alabama to the national championship last year.
Saban deserves credit for that. He deserves credit for the way that he’s handled a team that has nowhere to go but down. Clearly, he recognizes that. That’s why he’s asking media members to find negatives for his team.
Alabama could use some help punting and kicking. If the Tide ever play in a game that isn’t decided by at least 3 scores, those things might matter.
For now, though, all signs point to this being the most dominant team Saban has had yet. It’ll probably take collapses from Kentucky and LSU for Saban to win SEC Coach of the Year at season’s end. This might be Saban’s best coaching job yet. That can be true no matter how “boring” his team’s dominance is.
Sorry for the rat poison.